Conditions will soon be ripe for a financial crisis, but governments will have their hands tied
As we mark the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there are still ongoing debates about the causes and consequences of the financial crisis, and whether the lessons needed to prepare for the next one have been absorbed. But looking ahead, the more relevant question is what actually will trigger the next global recession and crisis, and when.
The current global expansion will likely continue into next year, given that the US is running large fiscal deficits, China is pursuing loose fiscal and credit policies, and Europe remains on a recovery path. But by 2020, the conditions will be ripe for a financial crisis, followed by a global recession.
There are 10 reasons for this. First, the fiscal-stimulus policies that are currently pushing the annual US growth rate above its 2% potential are unsustainable. By 2020, the stimulus will run out, and a modest fiscal drag will pull growth from 3% to slightly below 2%.
Second, because the stimulus was poorly timed, the US economy is now overheating, and inflation is rising above target. The US Federal Reserve will thus continue to raise the federal funds rate from its current 2% to at least 3.5% by 2020, and that will likely push up short- and long-term interest rates as well as the US dollar.
Meanwhile, inflation is also increasing in other key economies, and rising oil prices are contributing additional inflationary pressures. That means the other major central banks will follow the Fed toward monetary-policy normalisation, which will reduce global liquidity and put upward pressure on interest rates.
Third, the Trump administration’s trade disputes with China, Europe, Mexico, Canada and others will almost certainly escalate, leading to slower growth and higher inflation.
Fourth, other US policies will continue to add stagflationary pressure, prompting the Fed to raise interest rates higher still. The administration is restricting inward/outward investment and technology transfers, which will disrupt supply chains. It is restricting the immigrants who are needed to maintain growth as the US population ages. It is discouraging investments in the green economy. And it has no infrastructure policy to address supply-side bottlenecks.
Fifth, growth in the rest of the world will likely slow down – more so as other countries will see fit to retaliate against US protectionism. China must slow its growth to deal with overcapacity and excessive leverage; otherwise a hard landing will be triggered. And already-fragile emerging markets will continue to feel the pinch from protectionism and tightening monetary conditions in the US.
Sixth, Europe, too, will experience slower growth, owing to monetary-policy tightening and trade frictions. Moreover, populist policies in countries such as Italy may lead to an unsustainable debt dynamic within the eurozone. The still-unresolved “doom loop” between governments and banks holding public debt will amplify the existential problems of an incomplete monetary union with inadequate risk-sharing. Under these conditions, another global downturn could prompt Italy and other countries to exit the eurozone altogether.
Seventh, US and global equity markets are frothy. Price-to-earnings ratios in the US are 50% above the historic average, private-equity valuations have become excessive, and government bonds are too expensive, given their low yields and negative term premia. And high-yield credit is also becoming increasingly expensive now that the US corporate-leverage rate has reached historic highs.